Head transplants and Szymborska’s Experiment

The Nobel prize-winning poet Wisława Szymborska wrote one of her most striking poems about a morbid experiment where a dog’s head was cut from its body but kept alive by a blood-pumping machine.

The poem serves as a commentary on happiness and anxiety about the purpose of existence, but what many people don’t know is that the experiment was genuinely completed, and the black and white film that the poem is based on can be viewed online.

The experiment was executed by Russian scientists and anticipated later work by neurosurgeon Robert White, who attempted transplant the heads of two monkeys, as can be seen in footage from the procedure.

While White thought of it as a possible precursor to human head transplantation, the scientific community reacted with outrage and these days it’s generally thought of as a pretty appalling experiment that achieved virtually nothing of consequence.

Neuroscientist Steven Rose gives an interesting video commentary on the experiment, drawing from recent findings in ‘embodied cognition‘ which have suggested that the brain cannot be meaningfully switched because so much of our experience of our minds relies on the body in which it has developed and is embedded.

I’ve also included Szymborska’s poem below the fold if you want to see her literary reflection on watching the original Russian film.

Link to Soviet film on separated dog head.
Link to footage of White’s monkey head transplant film.
Link to video with reaction and commentary to White’s experiments.


The Experiment
by Wisława Szymborska

As a short subject before the main feature –
in which the actors did their best
to make me cry and even laugh –
we were shown an interesting experiment
involving a head.

The head
a minute earlier was still attached to…
but now it was cut off.
Everyone could see that it didn’t have a body.
The tubes dangling from the neck hooked it up to a machine
that kept its blood circulating.
The head
was doing just fine.

Without showing pain or even surprise,
it followed a moving flashlight with its eyes.
It pricked up its ears at the sound of a bell.
Its moist nose could tell
the smell of bacon from odorless oblivion,
and licking its chops with evident relish
it salivated its salute to physiology.

A dog’s faithful head,
a dog’s friendly head
squinted its eyes when stroked,
convinced that it was still part of a whole
that crooks its back if patted
and wags its tail.

I thought about happiness and was frightened.
For if that’s all life is about,
the head
was happy.

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